Religious Freedom: To Bake or Not To Bake

There is a lot of talk going on out there, in today’s America, throughout the mainstream media and social media about the “Religious Freedom Laws” that are currently being protested, en mass, by advocates of gay marriage and more generally, LGBT rights. These laws are regularly being compared to the Jim Crow Laws of the segregationist South, insomuch as certain business (bakeries, protographers) are refusing to sell their services for the purpose of Same Sex Marriages. Some see it as a refusal to serve the person and accept their money, as was the case in the segregated South. But in the case of the Religious Freedom Laws, the heart of this issue is much, much different.

For the Christian baker or photographer who refuses to cater a gay wedding, the refusal is not about the money at all, but the ceremony. And concerning Christian participation, or the lack thereof, in other religious ceremonies, Saint Paul admonished the Church in his Epistles not to consume meat sacrificed to idols. This admonition is very apt for us today. I don’t believe he would be ok with us cooking the meat for them from the ceremony, though not eating it. The Christians were to have nothing to do with it. This leads me to think, if a Christian’s conscience is sensitive enough that he does not want to participate in the ceremony of homosexual “marriages” by choosing not to photograph their wedding, I sincerely believe this needs to be protected, and honored, and that it is ultimately protected under the Bill of Rights. Refusing to participate in a ceremony that one does not believe in does not equate to racism, though this is exactly how it’s being sold in today’s culture war.

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The Sexual Morality of the Secular Progressives

The Culture War going on right now is fascinating when you stop to think of it. The movement is establishing Traditional Christians, those of us who hold to the faith as it has been understood for thousands of years, as threats to society. Many of whom feed the poor, help the orphans, establish hospitals, and give large portions of their money and time to help others in need; who, as it would be, also insist that sexual morality exists, holding that sex is for one man and one woman in the context of marriage, alone. The funny thing is that the Secular Progressives who are now in the process of setting up Traditional Christians as threats, the same people who want to liberate sex from seemingly any moral confines, also insist on sexual morality themselves, and very strongly. Vehemently even. Their line in the sand is simply drawn in a much different place, far, far away. Secular Progressives still insist that sex be consensual, and once this line is crossed, their wrath is unleashed (and rightly so). Sex hasn’t become so devalued and depersonalized to them that anyone can grab another and have sex with them apart from their will. Their line in the sand exists and they defend it with fervor. To a lesser extent they affirm that adults of a certain age should not have sex with a child of a certain age, even if consensual. Though I think this line is moving, if not fading all together. Perhaps this is the next barrier to be crossed or broken down by the moment, leaving only consent to remain in Modernity’s Code of Ethics for Sexual Morality. One thing is for sure, however, a moral line will always exist concerning sex for Secular Progressives. It will never be fully eliminated. In fact, their last and sole line “consent” will probably be strengthened.

What is going on in our society is the natural result and progression of the Sexual Revolution which began in the 1960s. Like all theology, all philosophy, worldviews, and ideologies, basic assumptions are always carried to their natural conclusions. How this relates to theology, one need look no further than the life of Saint Thomas Aquinas in the Christian West, or Saint Gregory Palamas in the Christian East. What is going on in the United States (and Europe) at this time, under the banner of “LBGT Rights” is the full blossoming of the seed that was planted in the form of the Sexual Revolution over 50 years ago. Maybe we’re only in the initial stages, the infancy, of this “blossoming.” Time will tell, and frankly, I suspect this is the case as far as things have progressed in this movement. Even still, having seen its fruit in light of the Christian Gospel, which is perfect love, I can’t help but diagnose the seed, planted long ago, which has now sprouted and is nearly fully formed, as a major tare. A tare I can’t help but believe can only result in the large scale persecution of Traditional Christians in the American Land, and the utter compromise of Denominational Christianity to the spirit of this age. Twenty years from now how will the United States look? What will be? It will be very interesting. I don’t mean to be a conspiracy theorist here, but, Lord save us from becoming global leaders in and promoters of Secular Humanism.   

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The Second Cold War

Over the years I’ve come to love Russian Culture and especially their Christian Tradition. The funny thing I’ve found is that here in the States, it’s common for folks to affirm the Russian Revolution while at the same time, deploring Communism. What many don’t seem to understand is that Communism came into power through the Russian Revolution. And this contradictory dynamic – affirming the Revolution, deploring Communism – is found in American Policy at the highest level. Woodrow Wilson supported the Bolshevik Revolution, for example. In today’s environment, it’s obvious that our government is aiming for another Revolution in Russia. The utter *insanity* of this policy. Since we’re not a historically oriented society, neither as it relates to Christianity or historical narratives beyond ourselves and Western Europe, we’ve projected Soviet Communism onto the Russian soul eternally, when nothing could be further from the truth. Meanwhile a new Cold War has risen, and more dangerous than the first. Today’s Russia should be our FRIENDS. We have become the aggressors in this relationship, or lack thereof, by way of NATO expansion, illegal sanctions, and a foreign policy that allows them no sphere of influence, while demanding the World as our sphere of influence. Media and political elites regularly throw out the term “Russian aggression” when they have started no wars, and conveniently forget the many we have started.  

In essence, what the new conflict boils down to is this – Russia is returning to its conservative heritage underwritten by Orthodox Christianity; America is becoming a liberal and progressive society underwritten by Secular Humanism. These two contradictory values are playing themselves out on the World Stage. Lord have mercy.

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Kindness Repels Blindness

Frodo and Gollum

I’m currently about 2/3’s of the way through The Lord of the Rings. Reading through this story, or stories (depending on how you look at it) has been a tremendous experience. Tolkien has created a world that is very much in line with the natural order of our own, however its mystical character is overtly seen by every reader. He has created a world rich with joy and friendship, albeit deeply fallen, where evil is a dark reality experienced by anyone who engages its pages. In these ways he taps into something innate about human existence which is not always apparent to the naked eye darkened by sin. Through story he tells us something of our own condition, something of the world’s condition, which cannot be communicated as effectively through plain speech. As such, he taps into a deep knowledge inherent in the human heart, through metaphor, sign, and image. I can’t help but think this is why his books have been so successful all these decades later.

Making my way through the story, as I have, I’ve come across so many areas of significance – you would think I would have stopped to write more often. However, as it turns out, I’m going to pluck a single straw out of the haystack and highlight something I stumbled upon today, late in the second book, The Two Towers.

For context: Frodo, Sam, and Gollum have been on a long journey towards Mordor, and now stand viewing its gates plainly in the distance for the first time. Frodo has been chosen to destroy The Ring in the place where it was first created, Mordor – the only place where its destruction is possible. Previously, and for a very long time, Gollum possessed The Ring, which to this day remains the object of his obsession. He was, however, sworn into obedience by Frodo along the way, and by this, has become a helpful (though suspicious) guide. In a critical moment, Frodo, who is always kind and trusting, and quiet more often than not, sternly rebuked Gollum, setting very clear boundaries and expectations for the remaining journey ahead. Sam, overseeing this, thought to himself the following…

It had always been a notion of his (Sam) that the kindness of dear Mr. Frodo was of such a high degree that it must imply a fair measure of blindness.

This line struck me, because often I think it is the case that people who are tremendously kind, or loving – that they are regularly perceived as blind, or at least naïve. However, as with Frodo in The Lord of the Rings, this does not need to be the truth about such a person. And in fact, if one’s kindness and love is authentically from the Holy Spirit, then it certainly will not be. Contrary to popular belief in our society, it is not rational or scientific knowledge that is the source of the deepest and most authentic human knowledge in this life, yielding clarity. From a Christian perspective, it is LOVE that is the fount of true wisdom. If one can radiate with Christ’s divine love, becoming this them self, then it is the teaching that they will see all things with a particular, spiritual clarity. This (spiritual clarity) is what was illumining Frodo’s vision when he rebuked Gollum, which, while stern, was done in loving kindness. Further it gave him courage to do what was necessary at the time when it was needed most. Such clairvoyance, while certainly a form of “vision,” is not a vision of the eyes, or even of the mind – it is a vision of the heart, which will illumine these other faculties, allowing such a person to embody truly deep perception.

We should all be kind to everyone, everywhere – all the while alert to the deception of this fallen world, and face it bravely.

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The Hope of American Orthodox Unity

OCA Synod

The Orthodox Church in America, the jurisdiction I call home within the global Orthodox Communion, has recently released a statement concerning the restructuring of the Orthodox Church here in the United States. It came at the end, and as a result of, the fourth gathering of the Assembly of Canonical Orthodox Bishops in North America, which concluded several days ago.

In the United States, the Orthodox Church is currently fragmented into eight jurisdictions. Each jurisdiction has a “Mother Church” abroad, who originally established their presence in this Country to serve and pastor their ethnic flock, who came by way of immigration. Now that several generations have come and gone, each jurisdiction finds themselves tending to more than immigrates, but also citizens, although still largely according to national lines. The only exception to this is The Orthodox Church in America, which begun as a Russian Missionary Church, who then received autocephaly from Moscow in 1970 and became Self-Governing. While each jurisdiction constitutes the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, insomuch as they have the very same faith and are in full sacramental communion with one another, they operate as separate entities, administratively. The Assembly exists to rectify this, uniting every Orthodox jurisdiction under one common, American Church.

I very much agree with the OCA’s vision for unity on several levels.

First, concerning the way we understand our autocephaly as highlighted in point seven, and articulated by Archbishop Dimitri: “not as masters or Orthodox Unity, but as servants of it.” What a humble way to understand this gift which Christ has given us. The perspective was new to me, and when I read that, it made me proud of my OCA hierarchs. Personally, I couldn’t agree more!

Secondly, that we should work to exist as an autocephalous, self-governing Church, and not underneath a patriarchate in another part of the world, far removed from us and our culture. The US has had Orthodoxy in this land for three centuries, from which has come Saints who are venerated throughout the world, as well as top-notch seminaries to train and ordain clergy. The faithful in this land constitute almost one million believers, and there is a growing monastic community. While by no means mature, we have the maturity needed to exist in this way, particularly after the period of supervision that the plan specifies. In my private opinion, at least.

Since the conclusion of last week’s Assembly meeting, I have had more hope than ever that one day, we will exist in a canonically unified American Orthodox Church in my lifetime.

So be it! So be it!

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Scotland, the United Kingdom, and a Ukrainian Scenario

scotland and the united kingdom

September 18th 2014, Scotland held a historic vote concerning whether or not to secede from the United Kingdom. Results were tallied and released in the night, early in the morning, yielding 55% in favor of remaining in the UK. Until the very last moment, reports indicated that each side had roughly equal support, mentioning that the result could go in either direction. The fact that it was so close had many concerned, including Western leaders, who quickly voiced their opinion days and hours leading to the first ballot. Personally, I think Scotland made the right decision, however, I do not think independence would have been as disastrous as our media implied. This implication, I’m inclined to think, was more or less an alarmist tactic to sway opinions, and ultimately votes, in their desired unionist direction. In the event Scotland seceded, sure, they would pay a high price initially (a very high price), however in the long run it very well could have been for their benefit.

In the event Scotland had chosen to secede, the following would have been obvious consequences: they would be flooded with national debt, which until then, was alleviated by the UK. In a few short years, they would have to completely remove themselves from the UK and organize a centralized government in Edinburgh. Their newly emboldened State border would complicate trade and economic ties between England and the rest of the Kingdom. Scotland would need a centralized bank, which they would not have…. leading to, perhaps, the most significant factor – their currency. The United Kingdom’s ace of spades.

The UK told Scotland that if they secede, they would no longer be able use British currency. Further complicating the issue, if they left the United Kingdom – a partial member of the European Union – the EU declared that they would have to go through the full and lengthy process of obtaining EU membership, taking the Euro off the table (in the short term). Scotland would be left having to form their own currency, which, of course, can be done, but requires a lot of national debt and stressful economic uncertainty.

The Western World stacked the deck against Scotland’s secession. The United States through their media and the Administration’s unionist support. The United Kingdom by pinning Scotland’s back against the wall with their British Pound. And the European Union by requiring that Scotland begin the full process of obtaining membership, even though they currently remain a partial member.

In theory, if Scotland’s vote fell in the opposite direction, eventually they would have full control of their Nation’s resources, and be governed by Scotts from their Capital city. Many there feel that this scenario would lead to better consideration of their national interests, and an overall improvement of society. I understand and sympathize with this desire.

Why then do I think Scotland made the right decision? For the sake of their short-term hardship, and the fact that I like the United Kingdom and would hate to see it dissolve. The UK has created a very nice society that functions admirably. There is nothing wrong with wanting to hold to such a thing, even at the helm of the promise of greater things. Maybe if the Western World would not have made it so difficult, I would think otherwise. The status quo is a powerful thing and I understand why people want to keep it. I am prone to keep it in my personal life… far more than I would like, actually.

Lastly, I would like to create a hypothetical scenario for the purpose of the situation in Ukraine.

Imagine, in Scotland, after the unionists’ democratic victory over the separationists, 55% to 45%, the separationists then decide to seize Edinburgh in a violent coup. They overthrow the political victory, through force, and set themselves up as Scotland’s authority, ultimately leading them to secede from the United Kingdom, into independence. Having seized the government, the unionists then reject the legitimacy of this government, at which point the new government chooses to wage a military campaign against the Scottish citizens who desire political union with the UK. Further, World Powers insist in the legitimacy of the new separationist government, saying that it is the right of the people to “choose their own destiny,” and then partners with them politically, all the while reserving their indignation for those who fight back.

This mirrors what happened in Ukraine, and the Western World’s response to it… which I find to be utter madness.

Long live the Queen!

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Screen-Hoppers and the Case for Paper Pages

e-reader-vs-books

Life in today’s age is a digital one. And the evolution of this technology has taken us from connectivity in our homes, to connectivity in our pockets as we go any and everywhere. So much time, in this age, is spent going screen to screen: from computer screen to phone screen, to tablet screen, to television screen… rarely are our faces away from these things. Pixels illumine our retinas much of the day, day after day.

Reading a paper book is a way I have gone about escaping this trend. Thumbing through pages illumined from above, by a lamp, than scrolling down a screen illumined from within, by a microchip, is an experience that cannot be replaced, in my opinion. And I find my interaction with the text to be more authentic, more enriching. There are plenty of great features and benefits that come with an e-reader: less expensive books, a portable library, reading in the dark among them. Then, however, you miss out on a real, physical library gracing your home. My bookshelf is without a doubt my most prized possession, which, year in, year out, grows and becomes more beautiful. There’s just something to grazing all the covers on your bookshelf, calling to mind memories of stories and books read long ago, which scrolling down a digital list could never replicate. Underlining and highlighting thoughts with real pens is just something I can’t ever part with, and something no feature can match.

So help keep print alive, and fight the propensity to screen-hop from device to device. Buy real books, read and keep them. They warm the home by warming hearts in the home.

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Uncle Sam’s Middle Eastern Folly

Image: A general view shows damaged buildings on a deserted street in Homs

Lately, given the current (political) environment, many articles have come out in the media asking questions like, “what do we do about ISIS,” or “how do we stop ISIS.” This group, ISIS, is the most evil and barbaric I’ve known in my life, and currently, is committing genocide across Iraq and Syria. Our government’s official position asserts that they are a “terrorist organization,” which they certainly are. However they are doing more then just murdering and destroying for chaos’ sake (which is what we often think about when we hear the word “terror”) – they have a deeper objective – and one that everyone should be well aware of if we are to combat them properly. Further, I am convinced, that our Nation fails to sufficiently consider the religious ideology that fuels their atrocities and ambitions, given the US Government’s secular nature.

ISIS, The Islamic State of Iraq and Syria, at their core, are jihadist Sunni muslims seeking to create an Islamic State, with Sharia Law, throughout the two States that constitute their name. Sunni Islam, is committed to Islam at its most pure, seeking to remain untainted by secular influences, which is an accusation they regularly place on their Shiite brothers and sisters. Sharia Law, the most oppressive and barbaric law the World knows, is the natural cultural ambition that springs from this Islamic worldview. If you carry the Sunni worldview to the level of government and leadership, up from personal piety, this is its fruit. Personally, I refer to Sunni Islam as “Orthodox Islam,” not because it resembles Orthodox Christianity in any way, but because it is the truth about what Islam is.

In order for us to determine “what we are to do about them” or “how are we to stop them,” I think we should first consider how this group came into existence, in the first place. ISIS did not exist two years ago. They formed as a result of the Syrian Civil War, from among the opposition forces fighting the Syrian Government. Immediately after The Revolution which led to this War, Islamic factions began fighting the Syrian Government (the Muslim Brotherhood among the most prominent) who were largely disjointed. Their unity was found in their common objective – to topple and seize the government. At the outset of the War, Saudi Arabia and Qatar, Syria’s arch enemies, chose to flood Syria with Sunni fighters. Among them, reports claim, death row inmates released for the purpose of fighting alongside the opposition. From this opposition, who our government has been funding and who our media has termed “rebels,” jihadists have organized themselves and emerged with a common vision, by way of their brutality, calling themselves ISIS.

The United States’ current plan is to arm and train “rebels” in Saudi Arabia, who are expected to then fight ISIS in Iraq in Syria. We are equipping and training rebels to fight… rebels. Saudi Arabia is a Sunni State with Sharia Law (exemplifying everything we should be working to prevent in the Middle East), who remains Syria’s enemy precisely because it is not these. So, America is planning (and has just approved) to train “rebels” in Saudi Arabia, to then fight ISIS (within their enemy’s boarders), who are an organized group of Sunni Muslims, with the stated goal of a Sunni State with Sharia Law – exactly as Saudi Arabia looks today! Yet they are supposed to fight one another. Each of these, Saudi Arabia and ISIS, have unified visions on two fronts: to topple the Syrian Government, and replace it with harsh Islamic Fundamentalism. The folly of this plan!

The United States claims there is a moderate element that remains in Syria and Iraq among the “rebels,” and that we will be arming and training these. The absurdity of this is beyond measure. Common sense aside, we’ve tried this already and it has yielded horrific results. Rather than the safety of everyone in these areas and the stability of the region as a whole, I can’t help but think, America’s primary goal is to topple the Syrian Government and destabilize the region for the sake of our own power and prominence.

Sadly, those who pay the price for all this will be the Christians and minorities. Through our policies, we are directly contributing to their genocide. America should work with the Syrian Government to fight Islamic extremism, who has been doing this since their Revolution, protecting Christians and minorities all along the way, rather than partnering with terror and madness, as we are currently. America’s foreign policy causes me tremendous sadness at this time in our history.

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Frodo’s Plight is Ours

Frodo post

I’m half way through the first book of The Lord of the Rings. Among my initial impressions, I can tell it was written by a pious man of catholic faith. So much of Tolkien’s imagery mirrors the spiritual life here, in our world. (I’m sure this was his intention.) Today I stepped away for lunch, as usual, to read a little of this story at a nearby coffee shop. I came to a portion that struck me, leading me to the thought, “Frodo’s plight is our own.”

Some important context…

As Frodo, Sam, Merry, and Strider sought to escape the Black Riders, they made their way to the top of a mountain named Weathertop. Believing it to be their safest option, they built a fire and chose to stay the night. Soon, they felt a deep sense of present evil and discovered they were being pursued by five Black Riders. As these approached in attack, Frodo feels an overwhelming compulsion to place the Ring on his finger – an act that he has been explicitly warned not to do by Gandalf. Disregarding Gandalf’s warning, Frodo places the Ring on his finger… and the story continues. Reflecting on the instance shortly after, he thinks the following:

He bitterly regretted his foolishness, and reproached himself for weakness of will; for he now perceived that in putting on the Ring he obeyed not his own desire but the commanding wish of his enemies.

Frodo’s temptation is common to the human experience. If we’re honest, often we find an inner compulsion, a strong urge, in certain situations to do the very thing we know with certainty we shouldn’t. This impulse can be so overwhelming that either we surrender and give in, or fight our will tooth and nail, not to. At the peak of Mount Weathertop, Frodo failed. We will fail at times, as well. Like Frodo, however, who had the discernment to realize there were forces at play outside his own desire, we should realize there are evil spirits, fallen angels, beckoning fallen human nature to surrender in these situations, too. Not every impulse is ours, alone. To think that they are is to misunderstand the very nature of spiritual warfare.

This weekend I had a conversation with my cousin. I asked him if he wanted to see Atlanta’s skyline from the top of the city’s highest building. My suggestion led us each to admit our mutual fear of heights. Then, he said something that caught me off guard – something that I think many experience but few admit. He said that when he is very high up, close to the edge, a strong urge strikes him to jump off. His confession led me to laugh uncomfortably, then admit the very same thing, myself. No doubt there are evil forces at play here. Most often, however, situations like these are not so obvious, and there in the shadows Satan’s deceptions can be most powerful.

Needless to say, I have a long way to go to finish this story, but I would be willing to guess that Frodo uses this difficult experience for the good. And that he comes out of it stronger and more prepared to face similar situations. Like him, we should take heart and do the same thing, always willing to walk in the light of the Trinity.

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Heaven’s Imperialism

heaven's imprealism pic

History is filled with imperialistic Empires and Nation-States. Even a surface knowledge of history (as mine) will likely have no trouble recalling the various Dynasties of China, the Roman Empire, the British Empire (on which the sun never sets), Napoleon’s France, or concerning more modern history, the Germans, or perhaps the Middle East which is currently experiencing the terrifying jihadist imperialism of radical Islam. Concerning the word “imperialism,” however, no matter who we are referring to or what their motives, it generally invokes negative connotations… and rightly so.

While it is true that each of these looks very different in terms of culture, beliefs, worldview, and the way they went about acquiring their territories – each of them sought (or seeks) to expand their sphere of influence, ultimately growing their footprint. But the case could be made, I suppose, that this dynamic takes place on every level of human life. Whether it be in the family, where parents seek to expand and instill their values, or in faith communities, as they evangelize and hope to win converts, or in business, as companies look to dominate the marketplace. No matter what arena of human life, expansion in one way or another, in one form or another, will always be at play. The desire is innate in the human heart.

This reality within us is not bad in and of itself… however, if it is not properly oriented, the characteristic is among the world’s most dangerous. Proper orientation requires a complete renunciation of our fallen human nature, and an ascetic struggle to be enlivened by the virtuous nature of God, whose image we bear. It requires that we fight evil within us, in all its forms, to become people of mercy and love, so that we can meet this impulse rightly.

The Kingdom of Heaven is itself imperialistic – it seeks to cover the earth, and will – but the imperialism of the Kingdom of Heaven is fully otherly than what it is in our fallen world, and this otherness is what we are called to embody as Christians. Heaven’s imperialism compels in perfect love, is merciful to all without exception, always respects human freedom, is never forceful, sows peace and unity wherever it is manifest, has no earthly borders, is a heavenly Nation whose identity is Christ, and will one day fill all things. By contrast, fallen human imperialism seeks to dominate by force, is coercive in nature and underwritten by self-interest and personal gain, rarely does it respect human freedom, but often oppresses it, and regularly sows violence and discord in its wake. In every situation in life, heaven’s imperialism – the narrow path that leads to salvation – should be pursued.

As Christians, we should work for Christ’s Kingdom by seeking to become bearers of His Kingdom within us. Then, as His love grows in our hearts, we will naturally manifest it to our families, communities, businesses, and country, as authentic workers in the field for the only Nation that will stand at the end of time, which rules in perfect virtue.

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